Economic disparities have always been how governments fed policies to their citizens, without them, we would live in an almost idyllic world. In such a world, the people will be more powerful that the government and if there’s one thing that motivates governments, it is more power. So it becomes almost reasonable to believe that governments need economic disparities, a high, middle and a low class, to exercise the control they enjoy over the general populace. The Roman Republic was no exception to this flaw in the fundamentals of governance.
Patricians and plebeians, enemies fashioned by a blatant concentration of power in the hands of a few and an utter lack of a balance of power. The image one gets of the plebeians is of downtrodden, exploited yet righteous hard working men who toil all day and by night devise spectacular plans to emancipate themselves from their political and social superiors (okay I guess I made plebeians sound like slaves which did exist in the Roman society but you get it right? I’m being hyperbolic). But like in every other struggle for the upliftment of the browbeaten, The Conflict of Orders ended with some plebeians reaping the obvious benefits and others, not so much. Gaius Licinius Stolo and Lucius Sextius Lateranus were the few lucky plebs who would become the parvenus of Rome.
Reforms in Roman History
Gaius Licinius Stolo and Lucius Sextius Lateranus were the tribunes of the plebeians (the office instated after the First Secession) and between 376 BC and 367 BC they actively tried to initiate reforms for the betterment of the plebeians. They also passed a legislation called the Leges Liciniae Sextiae (or Licinian Rogations) that curbed patrician monopoly on public land and tried to limit their economic authority. To deal with the issue of indebtedness, two of the bills passed set a limit on the interest rate of loans and a restriction on private ownership of land. The third and most ambitious one stipulated that plebeians be allowed to hold the office of consul.
Needless to say, the patricians, who thought that as aristocrats it was their inexorable right to be consuls, did not let the last bill pass and vetoed against it. Stolo and Lateranus, undeterred, sought their revenge by vetoing the elections of patrician magistrates for five years (375 BC- 370 BC) for the plebeians were continuously reelecting them as tribunes. (They were officially stuck in a dance of cat and mouse that yielded very few concrete results henceforth.)
Conflict Resolution in History of Rome
In 367 BC, they proposed a bill creating the Decemviri sacris faciundis, a college of ten priests, of whom five had to be plebeians, this would mean that the patricians lost their dominance over religion and priesthood. Another law was passed that instructed the decemviri that had equal number of patricians and plebeians to oversee the Sibylline books (a collection of oracular utterances, set out in Greek hexameters, that according to tradition were purchased from a sibyl or an oracle by the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus). By this time, the patricians and these two bold tribunes of the plebeians had tried everything to sabotage the others’ goals and reached an impasse. To resolve this conflict, the dictator Marcus Furius Camillus, negotiated with the tribunes; he agreed to their bills, while they in return acceded to the establishment of the offices of praetor and curule aediles, reserved to patricians. Lateranus also became the first plebeian consul in 366. Stolo was then elected consul for 361 BC.
Soon after, plebeians were able to become both the dictator and the censor, since former consuls generally occupied these senior magistracies. The four-time consul Gaius Marcius Rutilus became the first plebeian dictator in 356 BC and censor in 351 BC. Then the real breakthrough came and the Roman Republic came extremely close to achieving a true balance of power. In 342 BC, the Leges Genuciae was passed by the tribune of the plebs Lucius Genucius, which abolished interest on loans to eradicate or at least alleviate the plebeian sorrows due to indebtedness and stipulated the election of at least one plebeian consul each year. In addition, it also prohibited a magistrate from holding the same magistracy for the next ten years or two magistracies in the same year. The Plebeians now had real power and say in Roman politics and the decision-making process and they achieved legal equality in most senses after this. Originally the office of two consuls was conceived to prevent abuses of power and keep a check, now it served another purpose, the grievances and needs of both orders of the Roman society were addressed.
Duty with benefits
Now passing all those pro-plebeian legislations was a good thing, but the people who passed them were not driven only by the urge to do good, they were motivated because they got wealthy in the process. Like the patricians, people like Gaius Licinius Stolo, Lucius Sextius Lateranus and Lucius Genucius exploited the economic inferiority of the plebeians for personal gains (Stolo was once fined for breaking a law he himself had passed, basically he owned too much land).They became the plebeian elite and even displaced some of the smaller patrician gentes (the great families) like the Verginii, the Horatii, the Meneii and the Cloelii. The Licinii, the Fulvii, the Domitii and the Sempronii (who were once plebeian nobodies) suddenly enjoyed all the benefits patricians had for centuries. About a dozen remaining patrician gentes and twenty plebeian ones thus formed a new elite, called the nobiles, or Nobilitas.
Most plebeians though weren’t as lucky as Stolo or Lateranus, they were now at par in terms of legal rights in most cases but they still remained poor (I guess the laws to curb indebtedness didn’t work, I wonder why). The Comitia Centuriata was the main voting assembly that elected consuls and other officials and because it was organized on the basis of how rich you were, the average plebeians had a hard time getting any changes they wanted, instituted. Each century or voting group in this assembly had one vote, but the wealthy were split into smaller groups than the poor, giving wealthy Romans the upper hand. Things had changed for the plebeians but in a manner, their circumstances were no different than before. As a class, one in majority that too, the plebeians’ concerns remained unvoiced in general. They were not oppressed as they once been but they still remained the smaller nuts and bolts in the machine that was Rome; they kept everything in one piece but were highly underestimated and underappreciated.